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Phil May, rock ‘god’ loved by music greats

Bowie was such a fan that he reputedly had Phil’s name in his address book under the letter G for “God"

25 May, 2020 — By Mike Baess

FORMER Belsize Park rock legend Phil May – lead singer with The Pretty Things, considered one of the greatest UK bands to come out of the original 1960s “beat boom” – has died aged 75.

Phil’s brilliance, not only as a lead singer but also as a songwriter, cast a long shadow which saw him revered by just about the most famous names in rock history, including Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Jim Morrison, The Sex Pistols and Blur, to name just a few.

Bowie was such a fan that he reputedly had Phil’s name in his address book under the letter G for “God”.

Not only that but he also covered their hits, Rosalyn and Don’t Bring Me Down, on his album Pin Ups in 1973. Bowie also named-checked the band twice, on the classic Oh You Pretty Things, and also on 1999’s The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell.

The Pretty Things, like The Rolling Stones, hailed from Dartford, and were mates and rivals as both bands emerged out of the original rhythm and blues scene in 1962/63.

The Stones may have had the bigger hits but The Pretty Things played even harder and more dangerously, chalking up hits with rough-edged Mod classics.

Not only that but Phil had the longest hair in rock ’n’ roll with a cut past his shoulders in 1964 when even a Beatles-style mop-top drew attention. As the band moved with the times they embraced the emerging experimental psychedelic music that was taking over in 1967.

And, famously, they were one of the three bands that recorded ground-breaking albums at Abbey Road studios that year. Alongside The Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Pink Floyd with The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, The Pretty Things made the equally epic S.F. Sorrow.

I was lucky enough to get to know Phil in 1973 – a few years after he moved to the area – when I found out he was a member of my tennis club, The Globe, on Haverstock Hill.

He lived round the corner in Upper Park Road, often playing doubles with another famous club member, Storm Thorgerson, who founded the famous album sleeve designers Hipgnosis.

I had just emerged from the juniors and heard about this really good club player with long hair. I watched him play to pick up tips and played doubles with him on a few occasions. But I became more intrigued by his music and quickly discovered the astonishing albums the band had made, including Emotions, S.F. Sorrow, Parachute and Freeway Madness.

Over the next few decades I would bump into Phil in local pubs such as The Washington in England’s Lane and the Sir Richard Steele on Haverstock Hill. He was always chatty and a really nice guy without any airs and graces.

The last time we met was at Harpenden Civic Hall a few years ago when the band played as tightly and fiercely as any time I’d ever seen them.

Mike Baess with Phil May

Phil met me after the show and brought his fellow band founder Dick Taylor with him.

At that gig Phil told me he was suffering from emphysema and was having to retire because of the strain it put on his voice. The band were to play one final “goodbye” show, at the Indigo venue inside the O2 in east London.

And on the night the Pretties were joined by old friend David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and also Van Morrison.

Phil died last week following a cycling accident in Norfolk.

He is survived by his son, Paris May, his daughter Sorrel May and his partner Colin Graham.

 

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